As with many new parents, Michael Edwards, now 37, sank into a period of deep, somewhat painful questioning about himself and his family heritage after the birth of his first child some years ago. Having created a new life, he wanted to know, What have I passed on to my son? What of history and culture and even family demons resides in my boys blood? Those questions led him to create the award-winning one-man stage show Runt, which eventually evolved into a radio program before settling into its final and always intended incarnation as a film. In the tale, Christopher (Edwards, who plays several roles in the drama) is a man on the brink of an emotional breakdown, with his family sustaining collateral damage. He returns to his birthplace in Jamaica to participate in the spiritual ritual of Obeah (spiritual cleansing), confronting the demons and scars of his past in order to move forward. The L.A. Weekly recently spoke to the L.A.-based performer, writer and director as he was prepping for the Los Angeles premiere of his film at the Pan African Film Festival.
L.A. WEEKLY: What exactly was it about your sons impending birth that lead you to create the stage version of Runt?
MICHAEL EDWARDS: Id been fiddling with the idea of a one-man show for a year or so but couldnt settle on a subject. Once it was announced my wife was having a boy, all I could think of was the subject of mens issues. I wanted to be a good father to my son and didnt feel, because of unresolved conflict, that I was ready. So I recalled a name that meant a lot to me, that my own father once called me in anger runt. And I sat down to flesh out on paper all the images this name provoked.
So, is the work strictly autobiographical or simply inspired by your own life?
Joseph Campbell said to look at your life as a myth, to observe the "story points" of your life that make you you, then share them so that others in the human community can learn from your journey. Runt is autobiographical in origin. Its a factual theme with factual moments told in a fictional form.
There is so much current discussion about the dissolution of the black family and the perceived failures of black men as fathers. What do you feel Runt adds to that dialogue?
As a black man, it is of course my heart to focus on the plight of the black father and his need to heal for the betterment of his family and community. But as I discovered while doing the play around the world, this story is universal. In the film, when Christopher whispers to his wife after completely losing it, "I wasnt going to hit you," everyone witnessing the situation will know he was going to hit her. A quiet man discovers his rage. Black men, white men, all men repress. Runt, I believe, offers a very honest avenue for spiritual healing.
And that healing takes a distinctly African approach . . .
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Yes, Runts take on healing is an African one. Obeah was the basis of my research, and for the play I worked with an Obeah circle. I chose not to explain the circle in the play, however I just did it. With the film, I chose to reveal the device. A man enters a stone circle and does not come out until he has conquered, or at least faced, his personal demon. In Runt, Obeah African mythology kept alive in Jamaica by escaped slaves opens all the doors.
One of the strongest elements of film is its progressive stance toward issues of gender and sexual orientation, toward the ways in which all sorts of people are slurred and beaten down. Few modern black films, unfortunately, possess that level of awareness.
Christopher is speaking from his soul, and when one is speaking from the soul, gender and sexuality arent an issue. Im proud to have produced a film that promotes the rarely celebrated idea that the black spirit can rise above judgment. Im proud to have created a character that discovers not only that he can but that he must see beyond his lower self if he is to attain a future of any worth.
Runt premieres at the Pan African Film Festival, which starts Thursday, February 10, and runs through Monday, February 21, at the Magic Johnson Theaters. Call (213) 896-8221 for more information, or visit www.PAFF.org. See the L.A. Weekly Calendar section for Ernest Hardys festival picks.